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Egypt: Salloum office closes after aiding tens of thousands of distressed people

26-01-2012 Interview

The recent closure of the ICRC's office in Salloum marks the end of a remarkable emergency operation in Egypt to assist people affected by the Libyan crisis. Thierry Ribaux, deputy head of the ICRC's Egypt delegation, explains how it all began and ended.

Why did the ICRC choose to establish a presence in Salloum in March 2011?

What happened in Libya at the beginning of 2011 caught everybody by surprise: a humanitarian crisis erupted within the country and at its borders, requiring an immediate response.

For the ICRC, it became a matter of the utmost importance to be on the ground and at hand to provide help for those who needed it. Salloum is the main crossing point between Libya and Egypt – on the Egyptian side of the border – and thus the ideal place for us to establish a presence.

In March 2011, when we opened our Salloum office, we made it possible for dozens of ICRC staff members to cross the border into Libya to provide emergency support to hospitals, assist displaced people, visit persons detained in connection with the conflict, and so on. Furthermore, our Salloum staff played a vital role in facilitating the passage of roughly one hundred ICRC trucks carrying relief material to Libya. Logistical support of this kind decreased when the ICRC was able to establish a broader presence in Libya itself.

What help were people at the Salloum crossing getting?

When the conflict broke out, people began to flee Libya in great numbers. It is estimated that from February onwards, over 450,000 persons of various nationalities left Libya for Egypt, passing through Salloum. Thousands were temporarily housed in facilities at the border, while they waited to resume their journey home or to leave for a new country of residence. All of them were in need of assistance.

From May to October, the ICRC and the Egyptian Red Crescent jointly provided nearly 350,000 breakfasts and some 60,000 bottles of water, to supplement the distribution of food and essential household items being carried out by other humanitarian organizations. Soon, the Egyptian Red Crescent teams in Salloum, having been trained by ICRC specialists, were acting as the main providers of food for people stranded at the border crossing.

How did people get back in touch with their loved ones?

People at the border needed more than food and water. Some of them had lost contact with relatives when they fled the fighting; foreign nationals fleeing Libya were anxious to reassure their loved ones that they were alive and preparing to return to their home country or to leave for a new destination. By the end of 2011, the ICRC and the Egyptian Red Crescent had made it possible for these people to make over 25,000 phone calls. However, this did not always yield the desired results, and in some cases, the ICRC tried to trace family members abroad with the help of other ICRC delegations.

Our team also helped people who wished to return home or to settle in a new country by  obtaining laisser-passers for them from the various embassies. As it is entitled to do in specific cases, the ICRC issued more than 70 travel documents that serve as temporary substitutes for passports and enable people to cross borders.

Why did the organization decide to close the office at the end of 2011?

Most of those who had been stranded there had left Salloum. Only around 2,000 persons were still being housed in the facilities there, and the influx of new arrivals had almost ceased. Also, the people still in Salloum were facing obstacles that were quite different, as they were going through the process of attempting to settle in a third country. Given all these facts, the ICRC felt that its support was not as critical as at the peak of the humanitarian emergency.

Will the closure affect the people still stranded at the border?

The decision to close our office was not made abruptly, but developed over a period of five months. We gradually reduced our involvement and handed over the remaining activities to the Egyptian Red Crescent or the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Family links have largely been restored, but we will continue to provide ad hoc tracing services when needed. Our tracing specialists based in Cairo will travel regularly to Salloum to ensure follow-up.

A number of humanitarian organizations were also present in Salloum: how did the ICRC interact with them?

Several international organizations, notably UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme, and various international NGOs such as Catholic Relief Services, have contributed to the humanitarian response in Salloum.

As a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the ICRC enjoys a privileged relationship with the Egyptian Red Crescent. The ease with which the activities in Salloum were carried out was largely due to the close cooperation between the leadership of the Egyptian Red Crescent and the ICRC, particularly important for the provision of specialized services  involving several organizations, such as the issuing of ICRC travel documents.

How important has the Salloum operation been for the ICRC in Egypt?

Very important indeed. Before the Libyan crisis, our role in the country consisted mainly of promoting international humanitarian law among government officials, the military and academic circles in the region, supporting the Egyptian Red Crescent and helping refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt restore contact with their families abroad. The events of 2011 resulted in our taking part in one of the largest ICRC emergency operations of the past decade. Before 2011, nobody at our office would ever have imagined that we would be called upon to put on our "field boots" and deliver assistance. But we rose to the challenge. So, it has been a very valuable experience for all our staff in Egypt.



Thierry Ribaux